Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Worlding through Play: Alternate Reality Games, Large-Scale Learning, and the Source

Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Worlding through Play: Alternate Reality Games, Large-Scale Learning, and the Source

Article excerpt

Introduction: Gaming the Present

IN THE EARLY TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, our world is very much in play. Games, in particular, have become a prominent metaphor for and material reality of everyday life. Game structures and themes permeate American culture. Popular novels, films, and television series such as The Hunger Games, Ender's Game, and Game of Thrones highlight how central games of competition and chance are to contemporary society. Reality television shows entangle participants with game rules and objectives. Professional and college sports saturate leisure time and inspire passions. Video games and ludic virtual worlds engage millions of players, and the commercial game world has experienced fasterfi growth in recent yearsfithan either the film industry or music business (Wilkofsky Gruen Associates 2012). Outside entertainment and cultural experiences, we encounter military training simulations, national election contests, and the stock market betting of global finance that infiuence our political and economic lives. Games, then, in a variety of ways, serve as a form for encountering, processing, and testing the present.

In recent years, the phenomenon of gamification-the use of game mechanics in traditionally nongame activities-has come to infiuence areas as diverse as business, personal leisure, and social life (Groh 2012; Jagoda 2013). Gamification seems particularly widespread in education. There has been a recent proliferation of gamified apps, educational games, and digital media and learning interventions, but historically education has also included sensory-motor and symbolic play, as well as rule-based games.

John Dewey, as early as his infiuential 1916 book Democracy and Education, argued that play and games need not be treated merely as "relief from the tedium and strain of 'regular' school work" (228). Instead of a diversion, play can become "a part of the regular school program," one that engages the "whole pupil," reduces "the artificial gap between life in school and out," increases "attention" to educational materials, and promotes "cooperative associations" in "a social setting" (228-29). Dewey's celebration of games belongs to a broader discourse surrounding play that Brian Sutton-Smith (1997) calls the "rhetoric of play as progress" (9). This understanding of play derives from eighteenthcentury notions of human progress that grew into extensive theories of child development (Isaacs 1929; Piaget 1965; Sutton-Smith 1967; Vygotsky 1978).

Forms of educationally oriented play proliferated during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including innovative play-centric programs such as the kindergarten. This period also saw the rise of out-of-school activities such as outdoor games organized by the Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts of America in the Progressive era, as well as the trail-based game "podchody" played by Polish scouts called harcerze (Urban and Wagoner 2009; Montola, Stenros, and Waern 2009). Since that time, psychology and educational scholarship have treated play as a mode that enables adaptation, socialization, learning, and growth. The spread of multimedia platforms in the late twentieth century has also led researchers to think more expansively about the ways that interactive experiences, including game play, can infiuence cognition, afiect, instruction, and fundamental understandings of literacy (Bawden and Robinson 2002; Livingstone 2002; Thomas and Brown 2011).

Regrettably, throughout the first two decades of the twenty-first century, national policy has increasingly compromised play in educational settings by emphasizing standardized academic outcomes. At the same time, opportunities to incorporate play into learning have increased, especially with the emergence of a new media ecology dominated by console, browser-based, and mobile games. Serving as a countercurrent to mainstream public education, games continue to have a strong relationship to education and to spur ongoing research about ludic learning (Young et al. …

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